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Irish Voters Scuttle Euro Treaty


Recently [June 12], Irish voters rejected the latest treaty aimed at streamlining the work of the European Union. What are the provisions of the Lisbon treaty and the ramifications for Europe of the Irish 'No' vote?

The Lisbon Treaty was signed in December 2007 and is the European Union's latest attempt to make the E.U. a simpler, more transparent and more efficient organization.

Charles Kupchan with the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations says the idea for the treaty came about after voters in France and The Netherlands rejected a European Constitution in 2005.

"And then the E.U. came together and through some very difficult negotiations came up with a streamlined version of the Constitution and they called it 'The Reform Treaty' and then 'The Lisbon Treaty'. It was downgraded from constitution to treaty, in part, to make it pass more easily through ratification processes," says Kupchan.

Hugo Brady at the Center for European Reform in London says the new treaty is significant in three areas. The first, he says, is that the pact simplifies complicated E.U. voting procedures on key European issues.

"The second is the specific area of foreign policy, where the treaty merges certain bureaucracies together and creates a more powerful, single E.U. representative for foreign policy, who is a kind of foreign minister type character supported by a sort of diplomatic service into which all the member states would put some of their most skilled and talented diplomats," says Brady. "And the third bit are policies relating to terrorism, crime and illegal immigration, in which the E.U. has a kind of peripheral presence right now. But if the treaty were passed, they would become central areas of E.U. competence and then you could expect to see a lot more E.U. activity in those areas."

An Irish Blow

Under E.U. rules, all 27 member nations of the European Union must ratify the treaty for it to come into force. So far, 19 countries have done so with their parliaments approving the Lisbon Treaty. But on June 12, citizens in Ireland dealt the European Union and the treaty a severe blow when they voted in a referendum to reject the accord. Ireland is the only country that requires a popular vote on E.U. treaties.

Analyst Hugo Brady says there are several reasons for the Irish "No" vote. "The great majority of people didn't actually understand the treaty and they felt they had not been given sufficient time to study it. And nobody signs a blank contract, so they basically were unwilling to change Ireland's constitution. It's important to remember the referendum question is actually: 'Do you want to change Ireland's constitution to allow it to ratify the Lisbon Treaty?' -- the so-called 28th Amendment to the Irish Constitution. So they basically felt that they were not in a position to take a step like that without the proper information," says Brady. "I think people in general were concerned about a loss of power and identity for Ireland. And I think that is usually the overriding concern in these areas. They simply were not reassured sufficiently by their politicians."

Brady says the Irish government and all of the major opposition political parties were in favor of ratifying the Lisbon Treaty. "Their basic marketing message was: 'Trust us, we're your politicians.'"

He says that strategy obviously failed. "There was also this sense that if all of the political establishment are for it, and we don't understand it and have no instinct for what's going on, there must be some kind of conspiracy here. And it's probably best to say, 'No.'"

What's Next?

Now the question facing European leaders is what to do next and whether there is any way to salvage the Lisbon Treaty given the strong negative response from the Irish. Dominique Moisi with the Paris-based French Institute for International Relations says a cooling off period is needed.

"I don't think it [i.e., the Lisbon Treaty] can be resuscitated right now. Maybe the best solution is to freeze the dilemma for a while and hope that the attitude of Europeans to Europe will improve because the economic situation will improve because there will be new leaders," says Moisi. "But there is very little we can do. I mean, we can't simply act as if the Irish people had not pronounced themselves in the clearest and most negative manner."

Analysts say one possible scenario is for countries that have not yet ratified the treaty to do so, despite the negative Irish vote. Analyst Hugo Brady says that could be dangerous. "There are also problems ratifying in the Czech Republic and Poland, whose presidents are both against the treaty and would rather not sign it. And in the Czech Republic in particular, there is a legal case pending in October on the constitutionality of the treaty as it regards the Czech Republic's constitution. So that will be a key milestone for the treaty," says Brady. "If another country rejects it, then it really is dead."

Brady says another possibility would be for the Irish to attempt a second referendum. "So a lot rides on whether or not the Irish are willing to vote again, which would be extremely difficult politically for their government to do. But maybe that's a possibility, since they've done it before with another treaty -- the Nice Treaty -- the one which came before this one -- and if provided another country like the Czech Republic, in this case, doesn't reject it," says Brady.

Analysts are quick to point out that Ireland's rejection of the Lisbon Treaty does not mean an end to the European Union. It will continue to function under existing legislation -- the 2001 Nice Treaty. But experts say the political crisis will force E.U. leaders to reassess some of the fundamental principles governing the European Union.

One principle is whether to continue E.U. enlargement. Hugo Brady says French President Nicolas Sarkozy -- who takes over the E.U. presidency for six months beginning in July -- already has said that without the Lisbon Treaty, new membership is out of the question. "So that means that one of the E.U.'s most useful policies that has stabilized so much of Europe, especially since the 1990s and the fall of the Berlin Wall, is no longer available to the E.U. And that will be a serious blow to the E.U.'s already fairly fragile power," says Brady.

Analysts say as a result of the Irish vote, for the foreseeable future, Europe could be consumed by internal issues rather than be fully engaged in international affairs.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.

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